Articles in Grammar

From "A" to "The" with "An" and "Some" Between

articles in English
The title of James Joyce's first novel (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916), contains two indefinite articles (a) and one definite article (the). (Pan Macmillan)

In English grammar, an article is a type of determiner that precedes and provides context to a noun, categorizing it and the article as either definite or indefinite.

Articles are used as both a part of speech and written English and — depending on the audiences' native tongue — may present challenges to the listener or reader's comprehension of the definiteness of the noun the article is modifying.

There are three main articles in English grammar: "the," "a," and "an" — though "some" can also be used in certain contexts like "give me some food." 

Definite Versus Indefinite Articles

Generally speaking, the definite article "the" specifies a particular individual in a particular context. Such is the case in sentences like this, where "the case" is a specific thing that you, the reader, can determine that I am referring to in this moment.

On the other hand, indefinite articles like "a" and "an" indicate that the following noun is not able to be identified specifically by the writer or speaker. Such would be the case if I were to say "a reader of this article" instead of referencing "you, the reader." The indefinite article "a" is always used before a consonant sound while "an" is always used before a vowel sound.

The word "some" can be used in cases where the noun in question is definite, but the quantity in question is not which essentially means that the word "some" is interpreted as an article in particular contexts, though it is typically considered part of the larger category of quantitative determiners in general.

Popular and Variable Rhetoric

According to Ben Yagoda's "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It," the word "the" is the most commonly used word in the English language, occurring "nearly 62,000 times in every million words written or uttered — or about once every 16 words." Meanwhile, "a" ranks as the fifth most commonly used word — unfortunately for "an," it only ranks 34th, mostly due to the abundance of definite nouns (and situations calling for such).

Interestingly, Yagoda goes on to say that the differences between these three articles — and omitting articles altogether, known as the "zero article" — are so vast that most grammar books simply brush over the topic as implicitly understood. He adds that these books often say that by the age of four "native English speakers know in their bones the difference between 'I drank Coke,' 'I drank the Coke,' and 'I drank a Coke.'"

As a result, many second-language learners can find practical application of articles to be challenging, especially if they have to learn the entire meaning of noun definiteness if their native language lacks the concept. For instance, Chinese learners of English oftentimes underuse articles and overuse the zero article because their language does not call for articles in any fashion — it's assumed as part of their vernacular that you are referring to "the apple" when you say the Mandarin word for "apple."

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Nordquist, Richard. "Articles in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-article-grammar-1689136. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 20). Articles in Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-article-grammar-1689136 Nordquist, Richard. "Articles in Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-article-grammar-1689136 (accessed December 13, 2017).